From the Actrix Online Informer August 2011
Peanut butter wikis
by Rob Zorn
Last month we did a comparison between Google Docs and Microsoft’s Office Web, both of which allow users to create and share documents online. Both are great tools allowing committees, groups, or business staff to work together in a shared environment.
This month we’re going to have a look at another great, free service that’s easy to use for people wanting to collaborate online: PBWorks.
PBWorks is an online wiki service. Basically, it allows you to create a wiki – which is a place where members of a group can log in, upload documents, discuss those documents (or anything else they need to talk about) create web pages about topics of interest and so forth. Members can log in and make changes and additions or just download the documents they need – such as the latest meeting minutes that have been uploaded in Word.
No special web programming skills are needed.
Creating a PBWorks wiki is supposed to be as easy as creating a peanut butter sandwich, which is where the PB comes from in their name.
The person setting up the wiki just needs to create a free account at http://pbworks.com. Click the Log in button to get started and this will give you the opportunity to create a new account. During this process you can give your wiki a name which will become part of your wiki’s new web address. For example, you could choose a name like nzonlinetalkers, and your web address would become http://nzonlinetalkers.pbworks.com.
During the set up process you can decide whether your wiki will be visible to anyone coming to that address, or you can restrict it so that only people you invite and approve can see it. Another alternative is to set it up so anyone in the world can read it, but only members can log in and make changes or upload documents, etc.
The person setting up the wiki becomes the administrator and when they invite others to join, those others can be assigned one of a number of levels of access. They can be set to be administrators with the same powers to create and delete pages, invite other users, etc, as the person setting up the wiki, they can be set to have access only to upload stuff, or they can be given read only access – meaning they can see what’s there but are unable to change it.
PBWorks has an “Invite Users” tool which lets you enter the email address of someone you want to invite to join. The system automatically sends them an email with very simple instructions about how to create their own account at your new wiki. There’s also a “Request access” feature which allows visitors to the wiki to send the administrator an automatic email asking to join. The administrator can then decide whether to let that person take part or not.
The administrator can edit the home page of the wiki. This is the page visitors will see, or users will land at when they log in. The home page could explain what the wiki is about or it could contain simple instructions for new users. It’s easy to do, and works pretty much like Word or any other word processor.
Each page comes with a View or Edit button. Click Edit, and type in your content. Use the tools to set the colours and sizes of headings and text, insert tables, make hyperlinks etc. If you do know a little HTML, there’s also a button allowing you to access the code directly but, as stated earlier, no special skills are needed to edit pages.
Any number of new pages can be created by clicking the Pages & Files button. For example you could create an “About Us” page, “Latest News”, “Our Constitution” or whatever. Pages created get automatically added to a Navigator pane on the right of the home page which makes it really easy for users to find them.
Various themes and colour schemes are available to, which means you can change the look and feel of your wiki with a few simple mouse clicks.
Each page has a comments feature at the bottom of it allowing users who visit the page to share their thoughts about that page. This feature could really save your group some meeting time. You could upload a new idea to a page and invite members to comment on it. You could also use it to ask and answer questions like “Does anyone remember what we decided to do about such and such at our last meeting?”
Each time someone adds a discussion item or contributes, an email automatically gets sent to all the members so they know a discussion is going on that they may want to take part in. This also happens when new pages are created or content is changed. When a user sets up their account to take part, they can set how often they want to receive these emails ranging from every time something happens – to just one email once a week containing all the changes.
The frequency of these emails can also be changed later under their personal settings.
Uploading documents to share
The “Pages & Files” tab also provides the ability to create new folders in much the same way as you would on your hard drive at home. For example you could create one called Minutes, and upload your minutes there as Word documents. That way users could simply download them (which means you don’t have to send them around to everyone by email) and they would always have access to past copies. Similar folders could be created for other categories of documents, or for documents relating to particular sub-committees or whatever.
A folder for images might be a good idea too. For example, you could invite everyone who took photos at the last conference to upload them there. People interested in the photos could go and see them, and those not interested wouldn’t have to. This is much better than sending heaps of photos around by email to people who may or may not want to go to the trouble of having to download them all. Each free PBWorks wiki comes with two Gigabytes of storage space, which is a fair bit, and I know of people who have created wikis just for themselves as individuals so they can upload documents to them as a form of free online backing up – or as a way to send someone a large file without having to use email.
These are just some of the ways a PBWorks wiki could help your group, but it is just the beginning. If it looks like something you could use I would encourage you to make a peanut butter sandwich, set yourself up a free account and have a bit of a play.
There’s lots more to learn, and PBWorks has made it pretty easy. Lots of people with limited computer and internet skills use them every day, and once you make a start, things start to fall into place pretty quickly. And, of course, PBWorks would love you to spend money with them and upgrade to a premium account which has some pretty whiz-bang extra features, but for most of us just wanting a better way to collaborate as a group online, the free accounts will do nicely.
http://pbworks.com/content/personal+features is a good place to start.
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